Muslims get the same amount of basic respect I afford to all human strangers, however, free thinkers get more respect and trust from me than anyone who is religious.
Why are the two mutually exclusive? Follow up question: Is it not possible for someone, through free thought and free will (if those two things exist at all is a discussion for another day), to to decide that they desire the structure and spirituality of a religion?
Religion is choosing to believe something for which there isn't any evidence. Using belief that way is closely related to mental illness. If you discard reason for wishful thinking you have started down a slippery slope.
Alternately, if someone chooses to engage in religion because of social reasons: community, friendship, emotional support, networking, acceptance etc. Then that's a choice that has less to do with believing and more to do with social convention. Do they fiercely believe all the crazy stuff religion serves up? Hard to say....Do they really want to submit to stone-age morality or trust a clergy of pedophiles? Probably not, but loneliness can be compelling, and in some communities the pressure to conform is just enormous.
The ability to think about reality, morality, and humanity in an open and honest way is somewhat rare. In general, people are happy to be the passive recipients of ideology, rather than active seekers of knowledge and truth. It is much, much harder to stand alone, in the face of pervasive insanity and say, "I am not buying the bullshit. No matter what."
As a person with a degree in philosophy, who is an active seeker of knowledge and truth - I am more impressed by that choice than the sheep-like folks who identify with the flock. That's just me.
Finally, spirituality and feelings of transcendence are normal human experiences, but there is no need to wrap them up in a bunch of superstitious nonsense. If you need structure, it can be found in many places outside of a church. Ultimately, I think religion is an aesthetic choice. People like it because they like the icons and rituals to which they are accustomed. Stepping out of the comfort zone is hard, but that's also how we as humans, change and grow.
Thanks for the response. Just egging on the conversation here...
"As a person with a degree in philosophy, who is an active seeker of knowledge and truth"
Let's play Devil's advocate for a second. You say you have a degree in philosophy. In attaining that degree, did you not have to read the works of various famous philosophers? Aristotle, Plato, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche? And I'm assuming (genuine assumptions here; I'm have no legitimate education in philosophy) you also read less famous ones as well? In general, I think it's safe to say that you've read a lot of philosophy.
I think it's also safe to say that you've absorbed much of that philosophy, consciously and unconsciously, and that it influences the way that you think.
The "unconsciously" is the important part. Your thoughts are influenced not by you yourself exclusively, but also by the minds of people long dead who never knew you, who put words down on a page that you absorbed and now believe in. Sounds much like religion, no?
"But," you may say, "I chose what to read, and what to believe." Same in religion. You yourself stated that most religious people don't want to submit to the "stone-age morality" explicitly stated in their holy book.
Are they following the flock? Sure, but you are simply following a different flock. A different set of words. "But," you may say, "many of these words are my own. They are thoughts different from all else I've read and seen." Keep in mind that non-conformity can also be a form of conformity.
I was talking with a friend's parent recently (btw, the reason I have no legitimate philosophical education? I'm in high school.). He said that he remembered when Elvis was the big thing. Everybody, everybody, in his generation loved Elvis. You can't have that anymore. Now, if something becomes big enough, "mainstream" enough, people will eventually start to criticize it simply for the sake of being different (consciously or unconsciously). This applies to One Direction, certainly, but it also applies, to an extent, to religion.
Now being a "hipster" is just as mainstream as before.
That was an odd tangent. The point is, opposition to a widely-held belief or trend can be just as conformist as ascribing to the belief or trend itself.
This calls into question free thought and free will. How can you know that your thoughts are really yours, that you are not being subconsciously influenced by factors that you cannot control, or even know? I believe that free will and free thought exists, but also that it is ridiculous to attribute anything at all to free will or free thought, because everything we do is so muddled with a bevy of influences that we cannot possibly untangle the web.
I would ask you to prove that you are, in fact, "an active seeker of knowledge and truth", and that you, too, are not identifying with with an "flock." Prove to me that you are not a "sheep-like folk."
I would say that's impossible, but you're the philosophy major. I look forward to what you have to say on this subject.
(Just a reminder, this is all Devil's advocacy. And yes, I realize I've completely shifted this away from religion, but frankly, I find this subject far more interesting.)
Thank you for the inviting conversation! I read quite a lot of dry ancient and not so ancient text in my program. I began as a spiritual non-denominational person who had already studied various kinds of esoteric thought: Wicca, Shamanism, Gnosticism, Eastern thought, Buddhism, Taoism, and some Santeria, Chaos Magick etc.
But, of all those topics I grew disenchanted, rifling through the superficial differences among them to try and find the essential thread that runs through them all. I realized that I wanted to considers the ideas in their most abstract (Platonic) form, without all the trappings of religion. Rather than focus on the aesthetics of one culture's version or another, I wanted to focus on metaphysics itself, epistemology, ethics, logic etc. What I really care about is the meat of the matter, the meaning and ideas about reality - rather than the appearance of someone's preferred symbol, or set of rules.
All religions offer the same thing, a sort of map to carry you through life, guidelines, comforting after-death theories, and a god-form that hopefully you can see yourself reflected in. For many, the religion they are born into is satisfying enough, they accept the familiar symbols, the guidebook, the received values etc. But for others, this initial offering is not a good fit, and so they begin to seek.
"All roads lead home," no doubt....we will all find ourselves at death's door sooner or later, so the way we travel is what matters. For some it is easy to ride one of the big trains "Christianity" "Islam" "Buddhism" - but then there are those who decide to go it alone, and they begin to climb with their own backpack, taking a road which sometimes seems to be for them alone. This is how I am. Picking my way up the mountain on a solitary path, confronting each obstacle with why I alone carry.
Do I find comfort in the words and insights of those who have gone before me?
Certainly! I have my favorite books, music, icons, symbols, words of wisdom, beloved teachers and guides who have been there along the way. I have written my own prayers to my own gods, and I have listened to the sublime secrets that lay hidden in my own heart. Studying philosophy was just one part of that journey. And my journey is not really any different than anyone else's, it is only that I have made my own way of it - but I have found the place where I connect to all life. And now, after so much study, in my mid-life I am probably best described as a spiritual agnostic.
The crux of my position regarding religion is that it is an aesthetic choice. The ramifications of that statement are extensive when considered fully. Religion:
*It is an aesthetic choice.*
There is no one true religion, there are only preferred lenses for processing reality. When seen this way, it is perfectly reasonable to evaluate the quality of each lens. Some are cruder than others, some are very fine, and all will show you a bit of the truth, but all contain flaws. I spent quite a lot of time trying them on, looking through each one, considering its perspective. For my purposes in this life, however, I found it more useful to craft my own lens slowly, carefully, throughout the course of a lifetime, and always as a work in progress, rather than use one of the others which has been around for centuries. Again, a personal, aesthetic choice.
My respect for all humans sits at the core of my ethical principles, but my admiration is reserved for those who ponder: the life long learners, those who never 'know' but always are seeking, for those who do not receive beliefs, but generate them, for those few others who have braved the world in search of their own meaning. When I see them, I know them....
It's they who win my heart.
Fantastic response! Thank you.
But just to probe further...
You say you reserve your respect for those who "never 'know' but always are seeking." This seems justified at face value, but I ask you again, is this exclusive to religion? You yourself said that religion is nothing but a lens through which to view the world. You have created a lens yourself that serves an equivalent role. So if one were to use this religious lens as you use yours, as a pathway through which to work towards "truth" (whatever, exactly, truth is), then would they earn your respect on an equivalent level as the "life-long learners" that you mention?
Recall that, for a long portion of human history, philosophy was driven by religion. But instead of being called "philosophy", it is called "interpreting the word of God. This is true for all major theistic religions; they all have wide bodies of philosophical texts that arose out of them. This is especially true for Buddhism (technically non-theistic), where the religion itself, at its core, is just one big strand of philosophical thought. (Correct me if I'm wrong on any of this; this all comes from a high schooler's understanding of the basis of major world religions). From the writings I've read of the current Dalai Lama, Buddhism actually attempts to cultivate an environment of questioning, thought, and discovery. And I can attest firsthand (I'm Jewish) that Judaism (at least Reform and Conservative) does the same thing, looking down upon accepting ideas at face value, and encouraging you only to accept the aspects of the religion that you come to agree with yourself through constant skepticism and self-reflection. Does this relate to the criteria necessary to "win your heart"? Can people who use religion as a lens, and still "never 'know' but are always seeking"?
Also, just because I'm curious, what was it like studying Wicca?
Response part 1:
(You say you reserve your respect for those who "never 'know' but always are seeking." )
Careful now. I have stated that respect for all humans is at the seat of my ethical principles. My *admiration* is reserved for the seekers of truth and knowledge. My heart swoons for those who are most honest in their metaphysical considerations; they are my chosen friends and closest compatriots, but respect is something I have for all life, and all humans.
(So if one were to use this religious lens as you use yours, as a pathway through which to work towards "truth" (whatever, exactly, truth is), then would they earn your respect on an equivalent level as the "life-long learners" that you mention?)
The problem is that most of those old lenses are cracked or flawed. The human race has evolved its ethics by many degrees in the past two thousand years. (See Steven Pinker's wonderful book "The Better Angels of our Nature)
Using an old lens to find your way in today’s world is fraught with trouble and contradiction. Should we stone people who work on Sunday, or eat pork? Are women slaves? Is an ‘eye for an eye’ truly the most ethical response to aggression? Are gay people an abomination? Is it okay to rape your child bride? ...These, and many other questions, must be navigated by someone trying to understand life through a lens that is based on stone-age morality and science. I see that good people will do all sorts of mental contortions to try and 'fix' the lens to match with their modern understanding of ethics and science - the result is a continual fracturing of religious congregations. Because the lens is flawed, fixing it in various ways becomes open season. How many types of Christianity? How many brands of Islam? How many people have re-written these religions to suit themselves - to justify their own greed and selfish desires? Periodic reformation movements serve to splinter ideas more, but we end up with Megachurches and pedophilic clergy. In countless cases, the lens of religion is used to distort truth and hide malignancy within power structures that are built primarily for profit and control. This is my main beef with religion.
Humanity has much to gain by admitting there are flaws in our old ways of imagining reality. We are capable of building a better paradigm, one based on science and an honest examination of fact, one that can live up to our current state of ethical idealism.
I refuse to put the word truth in scare quotes.
Truth is not a moving target. Truth is not relative; and I don’t buy any of that postmodern, masturbatory thought. There is indeed a truth to be had, and those who ignore it do so at their own peril. Philosophy is interested in Truth, religion prefers “truth”, (whatever that means….)
Attempts to dilute the semantics of the word truth are really just cheap attempts on the part of the religious to buy more ground for their perilous fallacies.
(Recall that, for a long portion of human history, philosophy was driven by religion. But instead of being called "philosophy", it is called "interpreting the word of God. This is true for all major theistic religions; they all have wide bodies of philosophical texts that arose out of them.)
I’m going to disagree here. Philosophy has long been at odds with religion, starting with Socrates who was put to death for offending the gods. Almost all of the really good philosophers were persecuted by the religions of their day, some killed, some banished, some tortured. One of my philosophy professors told us “Philosophy is the world’s most dangerous career….if you are any good at it, that is.”
Take for example Spinoza, a brilliant philosopher in the 17th century who was condemned by his own Jewish faith for his challenging ideas. He posited the existence of the atom, and even described what they might be like. He developed modern notions of the self and laid the grounds for biblical criticism. He is one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. Yet, after his first couple of books he was exiled by his own country, and spent the rest of his life in hiding, trying to appease the church by re-writing and re-formulating his thoughts so as not to offend them. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baruch_Spinoza
No, philosophy is not the same as theology. When Christians try to do philosophy we call them “apologists.”
Philosophy is actually much closer to science than it is to religion, particularly Analytic philosophy, which uses Karl Popper's model of scientific falsification to study ideas.
( This is especially true for Buddhism (technically non-theistic), where the religion itself, at its core, is just one big strand of philosophical thought. )
Eastern and other non-theistic religions are different – they are in a completely different class of metaphysical thought, and do not contain *the same* flaws associated with Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The problems within Eastern philosophy require a separate line of discussion, since in many ways they do not fit the definition of religion that our Western religions embody.
Response Part 2:
(And I can attest firsthand (I'm Jewish) that Judaism (at least Reform and Conservative) )
As yes….”reformed” – this is exactly what I mean. When you have to do mental gymnastics and continually re-interpret religious ideas in order to justify your stone-age lens, you’ve already conceded that it is broken.
Jewish men thank god for not having been born a woman in their daily prayers, yes?
And should we look to Israel for an example of modern Jewish morality? There is still much to criticize I think…
But, you are doing what all good people do who are burdened with an outdated lens, you are trying to fix it. And there is some good will in trying to do so….But it is the difference between trying to do philosophy from inside a prison cell, or breaking out of your prison to see the world as it is.
Think of Plato’s cave analogy.
(Does this relate to the criteria necessary to "win your heart"? Can people who use religion as a lens, and still "never 'know' but are always seeking"?)
Does your religion justify violence? Does it denigrate women? Does it posit some humans as more deserving (chosen) than others? Does your religion kill in the name of its god? Do you have to make excuses for horrific outdated ideas in your ancient holy texts?
If so, then I will place it in the historical dustbin bad ideas, and steer clear.
I trust people who are acting independently. As Aristotle noted: “virtue is voluntary” – real virtue does not act out of fear of punishment, or for the promise of reward. True virtue is its own reward, and does not need a "Leviathan of Hobbes" to compel it. So, my answer is “No” – when I meet good people who are religious I see that they are good in spite of their flawed lens, not because of it.
(Also, just because I'm curious, what was it like studying Wicca?)
It was fun and interesting. I was young when I first discovered it, about 18 years of age. Searching for icons of divinity that I could relate to, I found the “goddess” – a female divinity endowed with sexuality and power, her autonomy intact.
“Yes” I thought, “this is a god-form I can relate to!”
I was very excited, and moved into a pagan commune of sorts to learn from a Druidic wizard. We practiced a Gwythonic-Druidic form of Celtic earth-based worship. I enjoyed it for a time, almost a year, until I saw that the congregation was fraught with the same pitfalls as any other: dogma, exclusion, hierarchy, and the misuse of power. So I moved on…and on, down that long list I posted above, and eventually found myself in the analytic philosophy program at the University of Washington, Seattle.
I still like Wiccans though, they are generally kind and tolerant people who revere the wonders of nature, much in the same way science does.
(This is in regards to both response parts.)
Before I start, I'd like to thank you for what is easily the most educational conversation I've had in a long time.
"Truth is not a moving target. Truth is not relative; and I don’t buy any of that postmodern, masturbatory thought."
So, then, what is this capital-T Truth of which you speak?
'When you have to do mental gymnastics and continually re-interpret religious ideas in order to justify your stone-age lens, you’ve already conceded that it is broken."
Well...yeah. The original lens is utterly broken. Which is why it was reformed, more or less "fixed", so to speak. That long list of religiously-encouraged action you talked about? It simply doesn't apply anymore.
"Do you have to make excuses for horrific outdated ideas in your ancient holy texts?"
Are you asking me, personally? No, not in the least. If someone says to me "The Torah says you should burn prostitutes. Do you support that?" I would say "No, of course not." If they say, "then do you deny the validity of the Torah?" I would say, "Well...yeah. The Torah is a multi-thousand year old scroll written over the course of centuries by multiple tribes and cultures."
But that's not the same thing as discounting Judaism, is it? A religion itself is not just its holy book. That's like saying the entirety of a tree is just the seed from whence it came. Not true. Dumb example: bagels are nowhere in the Torah. Yet they are undeniably part of Jewish culture.
I recall when I started to write my Bar-Mitzvah speech, my rabbi sat down with me, and the first thing he said was, "Look, let's be honest. The Adam and Eve story was made up as an excuse to justify men's dominance over women."
Think of a hypothetical dead religion, devoid entirely of followers. It's not a religion. It's just a book. A book is just a book. Without anyone following it, you can't really condone the effects of the religion. None exist. Religion is made up of people, and you can only judge a religion by the actions of those people. Furthermore, you can only judge by the actions of the people in the status quo; looking to past events as justification lacks relevance in the modern day, considering the vastly different role religion has come to play in every day life over the past century or so.
Under this criteria, your point definitely still stands. But I think that you should be justifying your point mainly through the actions of people involved in a religion, and not the text that sits at the core of the religion. Because if no-one follows the rule that "touching a chameleon makes one unclean (a legitimate excerpt from Leviticus)" anyway, then you can''t possibly use it to weigh against the religion. You have no impact, so who cares?
Obviously this does not apply universally to these outdated rules. You still hear about someone in some third-world nation being stoned for adultery every once in a while. But generally, you have the right target, but the wrong arrows. Fire at a religion using tangible negative impacts, not by throwing around rules that no-one adheres to anyway.
"But, you are doing what all good people do who are burdened with an outdated lens, you are trying to fix it. And there is some good will in trying to do so….But it is the difference between trying to do philosophy from inside a prison cell, or breaking out of your prison to see the world as it is."
In response to this, I can speak only for Reform Judaism. I lack the knowledge to defend any other religion, and I am further burdened by the fact that I, ahem, completely agree with you when it comes to 99% of religions and denominations.
I see Reform Judaism as more or less "fixed." Obviously I'm a biased party to this, but I have failed to see even a single situation in myself or in any of compatriots where Reform Judaism has blindly influenced an opinion or worldview. Influences it, yes, but only in that it presents ideas, from which people take or leave of their own free will.
If I have a computer, and you have a computer, and they have the same computing power, but mine has a virus, then I have an inferior computer. If I eliminate the virus, our computers are the same. Do not compare my compare my infected computer with your clean one to show that yours is superior.
(Now that I think about it, a meat/fat-trimming analogy would've been far better. You trim away the fat, and you have the nice meat left over. The fat goes in the "dustbin of bad ideas", not the meat. It's a waste to throw away both.)
So ultimately, where have I gone with all this? You cannot judge an entire "thing" by it's worst part. You cannot discredit the whole by attacking the half.
If that were true, then we should discredit Aristotle. He was a good philosopher, yes, but a terrible scientist. Most of his major scientific work, his most "important" scientific ideas, are either oversimplified or blatantly wrong. His pseudoscience restricted human progress for centuries, as institutions blindly adhered to it without tolerating any sort of challenges to these widely-accepted truths. You yourself said that philosophy and science are related. If his science was so inaccurate, should we not assume that his philosophy is inaccurate as well?
Of course not. That's ridiculous. Because the world isn't black-and-white. It isn't all-or-nothing. In every situation, including in widely accepted philosophy, we pick out the good and weed out the bad. John Locke believed that poor children should be pulled out of school and put to work as soon as their little hands could prove themselves useful. Yet we do not discredit John Locke, and base much of our governmental philosophy of of the ideas of his that we like.
Please don't take any of this as argumentative or combative. It is not intended to be. I agree with the vast majority of what you have to say, and you've been extremely informative and respectful.
I look forward to your response.
Response Part 1: (Before I start, I'd like to thank you for what is easily the most educational conversation I've had in a long time.) Thank you, I appreciate your intelligent responses and questions. I’ve enjoyed so much the opportunity to talk philosophy! It’s not often I meet people who even care about the finer points of a metaphysical discussion. Truth is an unwieldy topic, one best addressed in an epistemology class. But a quick and dirty definition would be ‘a statement that coheres with the way the world really is.’ For myself, I operate with a working “coherence theory” of truth. A quick study in the philosophy of truth: iep.utm.edu/truth/ And, just because it is hard to define, doesn’t mean I accept that everyone’s personal “truth” is equal – it is not. Some versions of reality cohere better than others. (Well...yeah. The original lens is utterly broken. Which is why it was reformed, more or less "fixed", so to speak. That long list of religiously-encouraged action you talked about? It simply doesn't apply anymore.) It sound like you have done something similar to me and ‘fixed’ your given lens in a way that is acceptable to your internal moral compass, and coheres with what you find true and worthy in the world. ( The Torah is a multi-thousand year old scroll written over the course of centuries by multiple tribes and cultures.") So, you have essentially mined the Torah for what you like about it, and the parts that still apply to your outlook and needs. This is not so different that what I have done, but rather than mining one book or one religion I have built my lens from an amalgam of widely diverse resources. (But that's not the same thing as discounting Judaism, is it? A religion itself is not just its holy book.) I don’t know. Do non-reformed Jews considering your group to be apostates? I’m unfamiliar with the discourse. Is the religion equal to its foundational text? I don’t know, but if that text is removed, do you still have the religion? Would Christians who reject the bible still be Christians? I think the text in inherent to the ideology. Bagels are culturally Jewish, but definitely not religious. I spent three years with a Jewish boyfriend who was basically an atheist, but he is still ethnically a Jew…..and so I think the term “Jewish” is fraught with problems and complexities. It is an ethnicity, a culture and a religion. You are conflating these aspects in a way that confuses the point. (That's like saying the entirety of a tree is just the seed from whence it came.) This is a lovely analogy, but one of the real problems with religion is that they all claim to have sole ownership of a higher truth, and yet theses congregations splinter continually – you, yourself are an example. So, if the truth is infinitely divisible and malleable then everyone’s claims are built on shifting sands, and therefore equal. In this type of situation there can be no truth, only opinion and convention. ~Suppose the “seed” is the Truth, and each branch is a different religion, and each flower that produces a fruit cries out “This is the ONE true fruit of the seed! All other fruits are false and therefor an abomination.” We enter into various levels of the absurd….and find ourselves exactly where we stand today. Which is why I reinforce my theory that religion is an aesthetic choice, and people will choose the one that they are most comfortable with. You chose reformed Judaism, and it works for you – that’s great. But for me, your fruit is only one among many, and it may be as tasty to me as it is to you.
Response Part 2: (I recall when I started to write my Bar-Mitzvah speech, my rabbi sat down with me, and the first thing he said was, "Look, let's be honest. The Adam and Eve story was made up as an excuse to justify men's dominance over women.") That’s nice. Glad to hear it. (Think of a hypothetical dead religion, devoid entirely of followers. It's not a religion. It's just a book. A book is just a book. Without anyone following it, you can't really condone the effects of the religion. None exist. ) Indeed, and it is my hope that someday we will see all religions as various mythologies that mark the passage of humanity through various phases of understanding. I hope that people will put aside the superstition and “belief” in mythology books. For me, Greek mythology, the Torah, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Bible are all in the same category. It’s all mythology; it’s all just books. And, each mythology has some measure of truth and morality. A broad perusal of sacred (or even classic) text will reveal that there are a few good ideas in the human collective consciousness. There are some principles that appear universally, and most religions have hit on at least two or three. Religion documents, therefore, contain a record of the evolution of human morality. Religion is our first attempt at understanding our place in the universe. We fail today when we accept these ancient conjectures without question, and apply them selectively or inappropriately to today’s problems. (Religion is made up of people, and you can only judge a religion by the actions of those people.) No, I reserve the right to judge a religion based on its text, its tenants, its dogma, rules, and ideology. For it is the ideology that is the most dangerous part. An excellent quote on this from Stephen Fry: "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." -Steven Weinberg Some of the worst atrocity in human history was committed in the names of gods, or religion. People are easily manipulated by words/books/ideology/religion. There is an excellent book called “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond. In one chapter he compares the different mindsets of the indigenous natives and the Spaniards. He teases out the enormous divergence in each group’s orientation towards war. The natives understood war for control over local resources, food, hunting areas, slaves, or tribal powers. They sacrificed humans to their gods, ceremonially, and for food – but they could in no way conceive of the power that Catholicism held over the world, what a ‘crusade’ meant, and what it would mean for the future of their civilization. When people are willing to die, by the thousands, in the name of their god or religion, we have something far more insidious than a simple battle over resources or husbandry. The power of religion to compel people to commit atrocity is as real today as it ever was. Examples abound. In fact, I would say that religious Reformation is a surgery on the ideas themselves, an attempt to ‘fix’ broken ideology. Philosophy is the tool best applied when religious scholars decide to deconstruct the more archaic and barbaric parts of their sacred texts. Reformations are great examples of an attempt to fish ‘the baby out of the proverbial bathwater.’ So surely, you cannot claim that a religion may only be judged by the actions of its people. Why them would reform of the foundational texts be necessary? (Furthermore, you can only judge by the actions of the people in the status quo; looking to past events as justification lacks relevance in the modern day, considering the vastly different role religion has come to play in every day life over the past century or so.) No, again I must disagree. I will not abdicate my right to morally evaluate people and ideas throughout the course of history. I absolutely claim the moral ground to stand in my present moment and judge human endeavor thus far. I do not accept “moral relativism” – this obnoxious idea each culture is moral or right ‘in its own way or time.’ The Spaniards slaughtered, raped and destroyed two continents of people in the name of their god and religion. I blame the Spaniards, but even more I blame the religion for giving them the ability to justify their actions, and assuage their guilt with a bunch of religiosity. No amount of ritual, architecture, art or other forms of pomp and circumstance can make their actions excusable. By succumbing to moral relativism we give up our right to say that some acts are wrong, all the time, for all people. We give up our right to be moral agents with an understanding of right and wrong. The enslavement of Africans by white landowners in America was wrong, as was the extermination of Jews by Germans. Wrongs committed in the past, currently, or in the future, are all still wrongs. No one gets a pass for having done it before we officially declared it wrong. The judges at the Nuremburg trials rejected this defense, when the Nazis claimed that they had not broken any written, existing law by the systematic extermination of their Jewish population, they weren’t lying. There was no Declaration of Universal Human Rights; there was no Hague Court for crimes of their scale. Yet the judges did not accept this defense, because even without a written, ratified, global law, everyone agreed – They should have known better. History is very relevant to the modern day, and while the role of religion in everyday life has changed somewhat; the aim of most religions remains the same: to thrive, to spread, to grow the congregation, and promote their ideology. Additionally, some congregations try to claim special rights for their members, and in some of the worst cases they actively proselytize and convert. This kind of metaphysical poaching is widespread. (Because if no-one follows the rule that "touching a chameleon makes one unclean (a legitimate excerpt from Leviticus)" anyway, then you can''t possibly use it to weigh against the religion. You have no impact, so who cares?) It matters little if the document is seen as a mythology, a book of old stories; however, if people treat it as a divinely created, infallible document – one which an be interpreted in almost any way – then the killing can begin in earnest. This is why there are holy wars. (Obviously this does not apply universally to these outdated rules. You still hear about someone in some third-world nation being stoned for adultery every once in a while.) “someone in some third-world nation” – Are you implying that third-world nations don’t count? A few women getting stoned to death here and there isn’t enough to indict religion as a whole. Okay – but then how many is? When does the tally begin? When do we start counting the deaths by religion? And when do religions start to take responsibility for the violence they engender? The Crusades, The Inquisition, the burning of witches…..no religion ever wants to accept their role in these atrocities. Iit’s always the ‘other’ guy who does these horrific things for religion: the radical, the crazy, the unreformed, misunderstood, corrupted, outdated, wrong version of the ‘true divine’ teachings. This denial is unbecoming when repeated by each and every religion about the others, ad nausea. The amount of contrivance required to prop up these burgeoning religious claims begin to look ridiculous to a free thinker. (But generally, you have the right target, but the wrong arrows. Fire at a religion using tangible negative impacts, not by throwing around rules that no-one adheres to anyway.) For me, the negative impacts of religion outweigh the positives. Any amount of war, killing or torture in the name of religion is enough to ruin it for me. No amount of pretending to be good can dissolve the centuries of wrong perpetrated on human beings in the name of religion. It is a dangerous tool for war, in that it endows its believers with a mechanism for discharging guilt, it offer vicarious redemption. If you have a means for discharging guilt then you can more easily carry out unforgivable acts. If you have a rationale to justify killing, then doing so will become that much easier. Religion is a perfect tool for war. If you believe that your religion sets you apart or above others who are different, then you are already engaging in the first step. You are buying into the “us v. them” mentality that is bred by religious ideology. You are already making the necessary excuses. Israel, for all its money and intelligentsia cannot stop the violence. Killing for god continues on both sides, every minute of every day, and not just there, in places all over the world. The fact that religious war happens less in more affluent, secular societies says more about the benefits of secularism than the inherent goodness of religion.
Further, I should note that I am not at all convinced of free will. And, I do not find that it can resolve the Question of Evil.
There's no compelling evidence either way. Most religious people have had personal experiences that are vivid, the kind of experiences they would use to justify a host of other beliefs we generally accept as probably valid like "I love my child" and "Those storms look like they're about to start raining". It seems to me that the problem is when people ACT like the question has been firmly decided either way.